Note from Gena and Jean: We are proud to post the following from Ron Arons, a returning cruise sponsor. Ron has some great publications and presentations on genealogy. Be sure to check them out on his website RonArons.com.
Jean Wilcox Hibben has asked me to comment on WHY people should do family history. The question, WHY?, is critical to my answer and I'll get to that in a moment. While in college my father showed me the family tree he had been working on. I did not have the heart or courage to tell him at the time that I found his hobby to be boring. I got into genealogy for all the wrong reasons. I started researching my family because I had a need to do so. You see, 26-28 years ago, both of my parents succumbed to cancer. In that same 18 month period, I lost two jobs and a significant relationship. In short, I was depressed.
While I saw a therapist and went to bereavement groups to deal with my grief, what really pulled me out of my funk was to research my past. I needed to determine: a) who I was, and b) where I came from. I started like most family historians do, by collecting documents of my ancestors and building a family tree. This is quite normal and expected.
What I did not expect to find was a direct ancestor behind bars at Sing Sing Prison in New York, one of the most, if not THE most notorious prison in American history. How could this possibly be? Until that discovery, I had always considered myself a "goodie two-shoes," always doing the right things and very far away from the law.
My great-grandfather made newspaper headlines in 1897 (for bigamy), in 1916 (for stealing from the musical instruments company Gretsch), and in 1925 (for attempted extortion working as a NY State income tax auditor). He confused me for the longest time because, on various documents, he went by three different first names and by three different middle names. Furthermore, he listed New York, Pennsylvania (specifically Scranton), London, and Hanley, England as his birthplace.
I was so captivated by the life of my great-grandfather that I explored him in as much detail as I possibly could and have continued to do so even until this moment. Just this year, after 20 years of researching his life, I determined that he applied for Social Security not once, but twice. As more records become available, his life story continues to unfold.
The true benefit of taking the time to investigate an ancestors life is such detail, is that I got to know him really well (even though he died nine years before I was born. More importantly, understanding his behavior provided me with the answer to the question, WHY? (Why did certain events take place during my childhood?) Extended psychotherapy, if you will, and very powerful stuff!
I took a three-year training course in "family systems theory", a branch of family therapy that explores family dynamics through multiple generations. What I had come to understand on my own (that family members have an impact on subsequent generations) has been thought about and taught to social workers and mental health professionals for decades. In short, genealogy can be much more than collecting names, dates, and places to build a family tree. It can help you to understand yourself.